Sparks on verge of perfect recipe?
L.A. has talent to be really good if roster's new faces work out their roles
LOS ANGELES -- Has it really been four years since Candace Parker made her debut with the Los Angeles Sparks?
It feels like yesterday we were asking how her game would mesh with Lisa Leslie's, or when she'd throw down her first WNBA dunk.
But the woman who sat in front of me after scoring 21 points in the Sparks' 74-61 win over the Seattle Storm on Tuesday seemed far older and wiser than the one who debuted here to such hype and happiness in the summer of 2008. Back then it wasn't a matter of when she'd win her first WNBA titles so much as it was how many she'd win.
Four years and too many surgeries, injuries and setbacks to count, Parker's still waiting on her first. And, in a sign of just how much the Sparks have struggled recently, it was her job to introduce this year's No. 1 draft pick, Nneka Ogwumike, to the Los Angeles crowd Tuesday night.
With Parker ailing with a meniscus injury, the Sparks "crashed and burned" last season, in the words of general manager Penny Toler.
About the only good thing that comes from finishing 15-19 and failing to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007 is an opportunity to snag a great draft pick.
Enter Ogwumike, the brawny power forward from Stanford who could give L.A. one of the best frontcourts in the league if she can learn to play alongside Parker, whose natural position is also power forward. Ogwumike had a tepid four points and three rebounds Tuesday. It's obvious she's still learning to play alongside Parker. It's also obvious how good the Sparks could be if they can work out their roles.
That's not what Parker wanted to talk about on this night. She has learned enough in her four seasons in the league not to get ahead of anything. Only the next game matters. That's all she can count on.
"I don't think I would take the game with the same mentality that I do now if I hadn't been injured," Parker said. "So you have to take the good with the bad."
We've pretty much covered the bad. After winning the league's rookie of the year and MVP awards in 2008 and falling just one game short of the WNBA Finals, Parker hasn't been anywhere close since.
That's her focus now. Her entire focus.
"Candace wants to win," Sparks coach Carol Ross said. "She's all about winning. When you have players that are more concerned about winning than they are about their own game, you got something special. And Candace, she wants to win.
"It's inbred in her. I don't have to have a talk with her about that. I can see it in the way she prepares every day and the energy and effort she brings to her own game, but also to make everyone else better."
Parker has found several kindred spirits in this overhauled Sparks locker room.
Alana Beard, the former No. 2 overall pick from Duke who has missed most of the past two seasons with a career-threatening ankle injury, sits at the locker to Parker's right. Kristi Toliver, the third overall pick in the 2009 draft who didn't find much of a home with the Chicago Sky, sits to her left.
"What's so special about this team is that we all have the same mentality, this sort of, 'We've been knocked down, let's get back up' mentality," Parker said. "This is our 'knocked down, get back up' second chance, and we're all taking that same mentality. None of us have won a championship in like the last decade. DeLisha [Milton] is the only one on the team that's won a WNBA championship."
If it sounds as if Parker is judging her career a bit harshly, you're right. She is. But so what?
"To some extent, people have forgotten," Parker said. "We have to make 'em remember. You're measured by championships no matter what."
Beard was sitting close enough to hear what Parker was talking about. Her ankle still isn't 100 percent, but if Beard can get it anywhere close, her defensive tenacity and slashing ability could fill a hole on the perimeter the Sparks have been seriously lacking the last few seasons.
Her attitude and leadership could go just as far.
"We have so much talent," Beard said. "But that's been the story with L.A. They've always had a great lineup on paper, but they could never get it together chemistry-wise. I think everyone here, we left our egos at the door."
Beard, who had 13 points and seven rebounds in the win over the Storm, is able to do that, well, because she hasn't been able to do much of anything the last two years.
"You don't take anything for granted," she said. "This is still a process for me. I'm not where I want to be by any means, but I understand I'm going to have to work every day to get there.
"I've been out for two years. Everybody's waiting to see what happens. I'm not supposed to come back from this injury. Ever. My doctor walked in and said, 'You might never play again.'
"But everything is starting to come back, now. I spent two months in Israel and I felt like I didn't even know how to play basketball anymore. I got that out of my system. I think I'm at the end of that."
Beard was the last player to arrive in Sparks camp in May. She's still learning the lay of the land. Still learning names and faces. But one thing struck her almost immediately.
"I'll tell you the one thing L.A. really got right: the coach," Beard said of Ross. "It was really interesting [in training camp]. We were doing basketball stuff, but she really wasn't teaching basketball stuff. Her mindset coming in was to build a foundation, to build a bond.
"Just from what I've heard from this team, everyone's kind of been on their own little island. [This year] we do have all this talent, but we also have individuals that are willing to work for one another."
It is about as perfect a situation a No. 1 pick could enter into. Parker is the unquestioned star. She will always be cast as the Sparks' "savior." Beard, who was only the No. 2 pick because she was in the same class as Diana Taurasi, is the humble, savvy veteran who has learned to take nothing for granted.
Toliver, who had another good game with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists after a 25-point night in the Sparks' comeback win in Seattle on Friday, runs the offense.
"It's much better for a No.1 draft pick to come in and not have the weight of the world on her shoulders," Ross said. "She's learning this game just like the transition from high school to college. She just makes it look a little easier than most because she plays the game with a lot of energy and passion.
"All the older players have been great mentors."
Parker's first lesson? Well, besides encouraging her to get out on the break and run when she has the defensive rebound covered.
"A lot of people stumble on one championship," Parker said. "But if you get two, you didn't stumble on two.
"Ray Allen was telling me this story: After they won their first championship, he was talking to Michael Jordan and he was like, 'Come back and talk to me when you've got two.'
"Well, we're still trying to win our first."